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Sharks 8, Humans 3

posted by Mickey on 8/28/02

One of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon is to visit Sydney Aquarium. In particular, I like to go down the walkway to visit the window onto a little enclosed bit of Darling Harbour where the Aquarium people have plonked a dozen or so sharks, who cruise around their enclosed watery ‘hood looking pretty cool but not making a big deal of their celebrity status by wearing sunglasses or anything, even though they are obviously the creatures in the tank that everybody has come to see (although there are some pretty impressive stringrays in there too). There are always a few children there, trying to smash the plexiglass, but the sharks just ignore them and swim around like they own the place. With a sleek grey body, dorsal fins, and a mouthful of razor blades, there aren’t many beasts, marine or otherwise, who can begin to look as cool as a shark. When one turns up at the beach, it generally causes an even bigger sensation than, say, an appearance by J Lo. There is a scene early on in “Deep Blue Sea,” where the scientist played by Jacqueline McKenzie looks down into the tank where the sharks are swimming around, working up an appetite for herself and her colleagues, and comments, “Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters.” The sharks at Sydney Aquarium aren’t as big as the ones in “Deep Blue Sea,” but they are impressive enough, and ornery looking enough to stirred some thoughts in me that in the past I have never quite been able to put into words. The next time I visit the place, I am going to remember to say to myself, ”Behind this shuddering plexiglass, a world of gliding monsters.”

It's okay to eat humans 'cause they don't have any feelings

According to statistics, apparently, you are far more likely to die from bee-sting, or slipping on a piece of soap, or choking on a corn chip, than from shark attack, but sharks are just such impressive looking killing machines that it is little wonder there have been a lots and lots of fictional accounts of their supposedly homicidal tendencies towards human beings. If you made a movie called “Corn Chip!” you could put the most sinister music in the world on the soundtrack to mark every appearance of the killer snack, and every time it was on screen you could film it from beneath, with dramatic lighting, but you would still be struggling to make a corn chip look very frightening. A shark, on the other hand, frightens the living crap out of people.

And if you went on “Family Feud” and the question was, “What do sharks eat?” you would be an absolute fool if you answered “fish.” You might be factually right, but since the survey wouldn’t be a survey of marine biologists, this wouldn’t be much use to you. Rob or his equivalent would pause dramatically, and announce: “Survey Says… “ and would reveal that some astonishing preponderance of the shmucks they had surveyed are convinced human beings form the staple diet of most sharks. Actually, although shark attacks do occur from time to time and receive an awful lot of publicity when they do, no species of shark routinely attacks human beings. It would be inconvenient for sharks to rely on human beings for their food, since human beings are land creatures. Unfortunately, the belief that sharks prey on us has had an appalling effect on a number of species of shark, which have been hunted almost to extinction on an entirely fallacious kill-or-be-killed basis, as if ridding the oceans of these beautiful predators was a public service duty that ought to be performed by every conscientious fisherperson. I am not going to talk here about the anger I feel about the horrendous things that have been done and continue to be done to the world’s oceans, of which this shark slaughter is just one example. Firstly, I am not an expert. Secondly, it is too depressing. I’ll only mention that you can find some interesting material about these issues elsewhere on the internet (not to mention in those old fashioned book things that they keep in libraries) and that it is worthwhile thinking about whether the wholesale slaughter of beautiful creatures like sharks is actually all that wise a thing to have been perpetrating, given the environmental cost of knocking out creatures that have presumably evolved to be the top of the ocean’s food chain for a reason. I am not advocating shark attacks, but I don’t think killing sharks, Vic Hyslop style, is much of an answer. You could save about 10 000 times more lives, straight away, by banning automobiles, and automobiles do exceedingly little to keep the ocean in balance.

Anyway, I am not here to talk about oceanographic facts, or the road toll for that matter. In “Deep Blue Sea” the idea that sharks are evil killing machines is taken for granted in the same way that it was taken for granted in 1950s westerns that Native Americans were murdering malevolent redskin sons of bitches. Before turning to “Deep Blue Sea,” I thought I would just take a few moments to look at some of the forebears of the uber-sharks that glide through Renny Harlin’s entertaining chomp-fest. Here is a little gallery of other notable sharks in arts and entertainment.

Shark # 1.
Featured in: “Jaws”
Type of Shark: Great White
Description: Amity tourist attraction

My parents took me to see “Jaws” at the Keperra Drive-In, a few months after it first came out. Keperra Drive-In was the main cinema my parents used to frequent, attractively set opposite the blasted landscape of a quarry. I am pretty sure my parents didn’t actually want to see “Jaws” per se but were willing enough to see it as the junior partner on a double bill also featuring “The Man With Bogart’s Face”. When a quality movie of the stamp of “The Man With Bogart’s Face” hit the main cinema screens in town, my parents wouldn’t rush things, but would set plans into motion to catch it when it screened at the drive-in, since that way not only would everyone involved get to watch a double bill, but a couple of the kids could be wrapped up on blankets, and so long as they didn’t squirm too vigorously when driving past the ticket office this would ensure them complimentary admittance. And what better way to enjoy a cinematic experience than to have 2 adults and 6 children (and, if my memory doesn’t play me false, on at least one occasion the family dog) all enjoying a film from the comfort of their own vehicle, with a speaker providing the same fidelity of sound as that offered by the speakers used to take orders at drive-in fast food places. I have got to say how grateful I am to my parents for undergoing what must have been a pretty hellish experience, in order to introduce their kids to the magic of movie-going.

“Jaws” of course, was one of the most successful movies of the 1970s and not only smashed box office records but established, once and for all, the reputation of Dawson Leery’s favourite film-maker, Stephen Spielberg. At the Keperra Drive-In, I thought it was just dreadful, but as the years have passed and as the film has grown in stature, I have always just assumed that I must have been wrong, until I watched it again as part of my research for this post, and found myself experiencing the same feelings of disappointment. And that is coming from someone with a Dawson-esque view of Spielberg. There is a legend that has sprung up around the making of “Jaws” about how Spielberg was unhappy with the script because none of the characters was very likeable, added to which there were massive technical difficulties about the mechanical shark, which meant that much of the proposed footage of Bruce couldn’t be shown. Spielberg’s legendary solution to this was to reshape the story so that the shark was hardly ever shown, but was instead a menacing presence in the water, somewhere below. So far, so good. The second part of the legend is that he filled in the empty spaces in the script where Bruce sequences were meant to have been by encouraging the lead actors to improvise dialogue. What ensued, unfortunately, was endless sequences of three wildly unattractive men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus and Robert Shaw) crapping on about nothing in particular, while everything periodically ground to a sudden halt so Robert Shaw (who is the worst of the lot, thanks to his atrocious accent), could bellow out a tuneless version of “Farewell and Adieu to you Fair Spanish Ladies.” The inadequacy of the dialogue meant that instead of watching the film in the throes of suspense in case Bruce shows up, I was desperately hoping not only that he would appear but that he would eat all of the protagonists, just to shut them up.

Since I struggled enough getting through “Jaws” I didn’t bother to investigate the further adventures of the franchise, even though one of them does star Michael Caine. I feel I went well beyond the call of duty in watching “The Deep” as well, in the mistaken belief that it was going to feature sharks. Like “Jaws,” it was based on a novel by Peter Benchley and as with “Jaws”, featured Robert Shaw. “The Deep” is more famous than it has any right to be for a scene featuring Jacqueline Bissett wearing a wet tee-shirt but, with all due respect to Jacqueline Bissett’s breasts, since this scene occurs in the very first sequence of the movie, there is not much to look forward to for the remainder of the film expect 1). Jacqueline Bissett could decide to put on another wet tee-shirt (which doesn’t happen) or 2). A shark could show up and eat everyone (which doesn’t happen either). My verdict, therefore, on the Peter Benchley adaptation-a-thon that I put myself through is that I could have had more fun swimming through shark-infested waters or trying to track down a video copy of “The Man With Bogart’s Face”. “The Deep” is proof, if proof were needed, that Jacqueline Bissett’s rack is not worth sitting though a two-hour-long film to see, while “Jaws” demonstrates that watching three unlikeable and ugly protagonists spend most of a movie sitting on a boat is an even less appealing entertainment option.

Shark rating: 1 tooth (out of 5).

Shark # 2.
Greg Norman
Featured in: Sundry golf tournaments
Type of Shark: Great White
Description: Underachieving golfer.

The man with a double bogey's face

Apart from the Australian golfer, Greg Norman, there are plenty of other human beings who claim to be sharks, including the Puerto Rican gang in “West Side Story” and members of various sporting teams who hail from sea side areas (typically), not to mention Mack the Knife and various pool sharks, loan sharks, and card sharks. But I think Greg Norman carries it off rather better than any of these. He underlines his sobriquet by wearing a stupid little shark logo on his dumbass hat. So, how did Greg Norman come to be known as “The Shark”? Actually, it is simple. Anybody who has ever seen any shark films such as “Jaws” or “Deep Blue Sea” kind will be able to tell you that when sharks attack a victim they turn the water around the attack into a seething turmoil of billowing blood, with entrails and gore and parts of vital organs strewn all about the place; and anyone who has ever seen Greg Norman in the final round of a major tournament (or even better, in a playoff for a major tournament) will recognise that he has exactly the same capacity to make a bloody mess of things.

Shark rating: 1 tooth (out of 5) (worn on the background of a luxuriously hairy chest).

Shark #3
Featured in: “Jabberjaw”
Type of Shark: Dark blue and light blue.
Description: Curly from the “Three Stooges” if he was a drummer and a shark.

Nyuck nyuck nyuck

To be perfectly honest here, I have never seen a single episode of “Jabberjaw” and from everything I have heard about it, apart for the fact that my friend Fiona remembers it as being a pretty good show, I have got to say it sounds unpromising, but what do I know? If Fiona liked it, then “Jabberjaw” is probably worth a rating of at least 2 teeth. It was made by Hanna Barberra in the late 1970s in the wake of the success of “Jaws”. The studio executives must have been hoovering up the cocaine more vigorously than usual on the day that this idea was pitched to them, because I would have thought there were some pretty compelling reasons not to go with a shark inspired by “Jaws” as the hero of a cartoon series, since even though every sensitive person who saw “Jaws” was secretly rooting for the shark, it remains a fact that Bruce was ripping the guts out of every swimmer foolish enough to stick their toes into the water around Amity, making him, in some ways, an unattractive character. The HB people attempted to lighten up the conception of the character by making his character a nyuck-nyuck-nyucking simulacrum of the character played by Curly in “The Three Stooges.” Jabberjaw also happened to be the drummer for an Archies/Josie-and-the-Pussycats style pop combo and he also, by way of an afterthought, when these other attributes had been extended to his character, happened to be a shark. According to Fiona, Jabberjaw didn’t go around casually eating people in the show, but my question would be, if that is so, why did they bother making him a shark in the first place?

Shark rating: 2 teeth (out of five)*
*Subject to revision if I ever actually see an episode.

How many of these characters will survive until the final credits roll?

Moving on to the main feature, “Deep Blue Sea,” I will say right at the beginning that this is much more like it. Renny Harlin makes good films. His filmography is an impressive list of enjoyable films like “Die Hard II“, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Driven.” They are escapist, and they attract critical derision, and they are as derivative as hell, but they are all well-crafted and lots of fun. Speaking of them being derivative, early on in “Deep Blue Sea” one of the sharks spits out a Louisiana number plate. This is unmistakably a nod to “Jaws” but I was struck by the fact that the homage even extended to the state of origin of the numberplate. In “Jaws” it was a plot point (determining where the fish in question had come from). I don’t think there was any reason for the Harlin shark to bring up a licence plate, but at least being able to recognise the reference made me feel a little bit better about the time I had wasted revisiting Spielberg’s film.

The first few minutes of “Deep Blue Sea,” featuring a young woman wearing a bikini of such a luminous orange colour that it almost made my eyes water, unfolds like a short film anticipating all the carnage that is going to come. There is even a shot of the rocking of the boat making a bottle of red wine spill onto the deck. It is corny, sure, but it is corny in a good way. And then there is a shot of a teddy bear drifting to the bottom of the ocean that is a little bit more unexpected but haunting and apposite. It is good film-making. The same instinct, it has got to be admitted, leads to other images as hokey as a scene towards the end where a character saves himself from being eaten by a shark by thrusting a crucifix that he wears around his neck into the man-eater’s eye, but I can put up with this kind of ponderous symbolism if it occurs within a genuinely entertaining film.

“Deep Blue Sea” is set on a multi-level underwater facility called Aquatica. The movie is very nice shot, with lots of images of light falling through grills onto long watery corridors and lovely blue shadows falling onto the faces of the actors. The main characters are all scientists who have been researching a potential cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The treatment involves pumping mako sharks full of chemicals and then using shark juice to interact with human brain tissue (or something like that). The smarter the sharks, the more effective is the serum that can be extracted from them, so the scientists, in particular Susan, the character played by Saffron Burrows, have been increasing the dosage in an attempt to produce sharks of maximum intelligence. Apparently, her father suffered from Alzheimers and her desire to tamper with the shark’s IQ is motivated by her passionate feelings about the effects on the disease. Saffron Burrows (who probably comes from the same part of England as Jacqueline Bissett, if her voice is anything to go by) has one of the best dimples on her chin of any female lead since Ava Gardner. Very early on in the movie, two things are apparent about this beautiful ruthless mad scientist i.e. 1) sooner or later, she is going to meet the same fate as a scooby snack; and/but 2) before this comes to pass, we are going to spend substantial periods of the film watching her model some very wet and clinging clothing.

Hubba hubba hubba

Or is she? Let’s face it, the clinging clothing aspect of my prediction is an absolute fait accompli, but as for Saffron Burrows’ chances of survival, well, I don’t want to give it away for anyone who hasn’t sent the film yet. Apart from being a shark flick, “Deep Blue Sea” (and countless other films) belongs in a genre I call the “Ten Little Indians” film. In Agatha Christie’s famous murder mystery novel of this title (also known as “Ten Little Niggers” in some editions, although not recent ones, and filmed as “And Then There Were None”) there are 10 people on an island who are getting bumped off, one by one, by an unknown murderer. Obviously, as characters get rubbed out, they are eliminated as suspects. Of course, “Deep Blue Sea” isn’t a whodunit since it is pretty obvious that the sharks are the creatures doing it, but essentially the narrative enjoyment is the same. The pleasure an audience gets from watching “Deep Blue Sea” is from guessing who will be the next entrant into the shark’s jaws, and who will survive to the end. When I saw this film at the cinema, I whispered to the friend with whom I saw it that I would have been willing to bet her a million dollars that Saffron Burrows was for the chomp. She whispered back to me a little later that L.L.Cool J’s character, Sherman Dudley, or The Cook, had victim written all over him. The film plays around with the expectations and protocols of the “10 Little Indians” genre. When LL Cool J, playing a chef (how is that for imaginative casting) meets Samuel L Jackson’s character, Franklin, he says, “You’re the guy that got caught in that avalanche?” “Yup,” Franklin admits, “I’m the one.” LL Cool J replies, “Like black people don’t have enough ways to get killed without climbing up some sorry ass mountains in the middle of God’s nowhere! Ought to leave that to the white folks, brother.” This kind of conversation is a postmodernist code for the fact that everybody knows African-Americans are routinely used as monster fodder in “10 Little Indians” films, so this appears to be a quintessential conversation between two doomed characters.

Long John LL Cool J

The other members of the ensemble include the aforementioned Jacqueline McKenzie, Thomas Jane playing Carter, the square-jawed jailbird he-man, and Michael Rappaport playing a scientist with a goatee. People with goatees are probably even less likely than African-Americans to survive to be among the last little Indians in a film of this nature, so enjoy his performance while you can. That is not to say his character doesn’t make it through to the end of the film. I am not giving anything away. All I am saying he has a goatee. It may seem to stack up the odds against him, but expectations are there to be confounded, or the Yankees would win every World Series. Although Samuel L Jackson gives a rousing speech about how the Aquaticans can all pull together and make it through the tribulations in which they find themselves, experience shows that it isn’t teamwork that gets you through to end of a Ten Little Indians film, although dumb luck, good looks and box office appeal are all factors that have to taken into consideration, just as in real life.

Actually dumb luck plays a bigger part than normal because one of the really enjoyable aspects of this movie is that the battle between the scientists and the sharks is staged a confrontation between stupid people and smart animals. Since the scientists have been stupid enough to pump the sharks full of performance enhancing drugs (derr!) the human beings are at a considerable disadvantage not only when it comes to strength and manoeuvrability in a watery environment, but also in terms of tactical and strategic planning. At the end, when it transpires the sharks have been finessing an escape route for themselves that has involved them moving the surviving human beings to the locations where they want them, as if there were so many chess pieces, this comes as a surprise only to the scientists in question.

The strategy used by the sharks at the beginning of their revolution shows typical shark forward thinking. One of the scientists is going about his business, when the shark seizes the opportunity to chop his arm off. Note: only his arm. Nice thinking. A gambit. These are such brainy sharks that they could by rights have wiped the humans out 10 times by now, but if they did that, they would still be stuck in Aquatica. By taking the guy’s arm off, they provoke the scientists to call in a helicopter, so the wounded scientist can be taken to safety. No sooner has the helicopter come into the area and begun winching up the victim, than the shark leaps out of the water and grabs onto the cable and pulls the helicopter down to its doom. It is a good action sequence of one chopper verus another, and it finishes with a great underwater shot of the resulting explosion turning the water chimney red. This is early-on in the film, and I remember thinking to myself at this stage that taking out a helicopter was pretty impressive work, for a shark. By the end of the movie, however, I was compelled to admit that, in retrospect, this was probably the biggest error the sharks made. If only the shark in question had thought things through a little better, and had found a way to bring the helicopter down safely, then he and his mates would surely have been able to master the control panel in a few minutes flat, and they could have flown themselves to safety without needing to resort to the over elaborate strategy that, in the end, is their downfall.

Carter tries to eliminate one of the monsters by feeding it a soggy corn chip

I wouldn’t say “Deep Blue Sea” is a great movie. In terms of characters, it largely suffers the same defect as “Jaws” in that nobody amongst the humans is very likeable, and while the sharks are clearly better contestants, they are given insufficient screen time to develop their characters. One of them falls for a silly trick because he is distracted by the sight of Saffron Burrows in her underwear and the final shark stumbles just when victory is in sight by being a little bit too greedy, so you would have to say they have their problems too. Overall, however, “Deep Blue Sea” is one of the more enjoyable genre movies to have come out of Hollywood movies in the last few years. It was fun in the cinema and survives on video better than some action films. I am a vegetarian, so it isn’t going to happen but if I was ever going to watch a video while eating a plate of chips and flake, this would be the one.


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